Sunday, August 06, 2006

#8 Background to 'Every Child Matters'

Every Child Matters’ (ECM) was published in September 2003 following Lord Laming’s report on the death of Victoria Climbie; its proposals formed the core of the subsequent Children Act 2004.

At the heart of ECM is an extension of the 'preventive' agenda: the belief is that if all agencies work together to keep an eye on every child, and intervene in 'low-level' problems, this will prevent potentially serious problems developing. To aid this process, ECM does away with the idea of separate local authority services. Instead, all services are brought together into a multi-agency ‘children’s trust’. This is inspected by a single joint inspections body, headed by OFSTED.

The joint inspections body judges how well agencies are working together, and whether they are making progress against 5 ‘outcomes’ - performance indicators for each child. These say that children should:

  • Be healthy
  • Stay safe
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Achieve economic well-being

A further 26 Public Service Agreement targets (PSAs) have been defined for local authorities. These are the actual benchmarks against which their performance in implementing the 'five outcomes' will be measured. A full list, including the now-famous '5 fruit and veg a day', can be seen here

The ECM agenda also conflates ‘child protection’ and ‘safeguarding children’. The first refers to children at risk of abuse or serious neglect; the second to children in need of local authority services. This distinction is very important - more about it below.

Finally, the ECM agenda involves setting up a central database to allow practitioners to share information about children and their families so that they can discuss what services they need. The Children Act allows this to be done without consent, and the details are left to regulations. This database is now known as the Children's Index, and we will deal with it in more detail in a couple of days.

The information-sharing agenda and ‘joined-up services’ agenda was not a response to the Laming Inquiry: it had already been under discussion for some time as part of the government’s third priority, ‘modernisation’.

In 1999 the white paper ‘Modernising Government’ was published. The Executive Summary explains the intentions to ‘join up’ services and “deliver a big push on obstacles to joined-up working”. It also talks about “information age government” and sets the scene for what has become known as ‘e-government’ – electronic delivery of public services.

The following year saw the publication of three Cabinet Office documents that took these ideas further. ‘e-government: A Strategic Framework for Public Services in the Information Age’ discussed "sharing data between departments in support of integrated services" and the possible need for changes in the law to allow this.

Also in 2000, the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit produced
'Wiring it up' and 'Electronic Government Services for the 21st Century'. (The ‘vision’ set out on p16 of this second document is well worth reading.)

In April 2002 the PIU produced a further report: ‘Privacy and Data-sharing’. This identified areas where rapid progress could be made in joining-up services, and included children’s services on the basis that agencies would be able: "to identify quickly children at risk of social exclusion and provide the support they need to keep them on track”.

Lord Laming’s report was published in January 2003. When ‘Every Child Matters’ was subsequently published during the autumn of that year, The Secretary of State for Education
said: “This Green Paper sets out our plans to reform children’s services in response to Lord Laming’s Inquiry report into the death of Victoria Climbié.”

There are still those who, because of the link that was made between Victoria Climbie and a need for ‘joined-up’ services, believe that the 'Every Child Matters' agenda sprang directly from Lord Laming's report, and that the purpose of the new ‘Children’s Index’ is solely to protect children from abuse. This belief is strengthened by the repeated use of the phrase ‘at risk’.

Historically, ‘at risk’ has meant at risk of ‘significant harm’ as set out in s47 of the Children Act 1989. This is no longer the case. Although the change of definition has not been addressed directly, ‘at risk’ now has several meanings, including ‘at risk of committing offences’, ‘at risk of social exclusion’ and ‘at risk of not receiving services’.

The association of ‘Every Child Matters’ with Victoria Climbie and the repeated use of expressions such as 'safeguarding' and ‘at risk’, without making it entirely clear what the ‘risk’ is, have had the unfortunate effect of confusing child protection with more general child welfare concerns where abuse is not an issue. This confusion has stifled essential debate – after all, who could possibly be against protecting children who are in danger of abuse or serious neglect?

The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda proposes a fundamental shift in the role that the state plays in family life, yet the majority of families remain completely unaware of this.


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